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Debate Club: The 5 best Universal Classic Monster movies

Contributed by
May 8, 2019

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

Remember a couple of years ago when Tom Cruise starred in The Mummy? That was meant to kick-start the so-called Dark Universe cinematic universe, which ended up not happening.

The idea was that Universal was going to revisit all its classic horror movie properties. While there's a chance that this franchise could still rise from the dead, we decided to take a moment to highlight the five best films from the original Universal Classic Monsters era, which ran from 1930 until about 1960. To be sure, there are way more than five great UCM movies, so consider this a sampler. If you like what we've served up, by all means, keep digging in.

Phantom

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Lon Chaney made sure to keep his makeup a secret until the film's premiere, much like an Avengers spoiler today. That's a testament to the power of this movie's still-terrifying image, almost 100 years later, which is as ghastly and haunted now as it was back then.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

It is worth noting that when protestors came to Congress wearing masks to mock Trump's "draining the swamp" edict, they thought they were wearing Swamp Thing masks... but they were, of course, wearing Creature From the Black Lagoon masks.

It's funny how fondly we think of the Gill-man now, who, after all, is pretty unreservedly a bad guy in the original movie. Today, Guillermo del Toro has us, essentially, falling in love with the creature. We were headed that way all along.

DRacula

Dracula (1931)

It's often forgotten that Bela Lugosi originated the role of Dracula on Broadway; he was not just a beneficiary of stylized lighting and some scowls. (Also, he once played Jesus Christ for the National Theater of Budapest, if you can believe that.)

There have been many, many vampires on screen over the past 100 years — too many, honestly — but it's still Legosi's we default to. You still see the old master even in those terrible Ed Wood films: the guy had presence 'til the very end.

Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (1933)

Claude Rains was one of the finest actors of Hollywood's studio-system era, doing terrific work in everything from Casablanca to Notorious to Lawrence of Arabia. But one of his first film roles was in this adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, which tells the story of a scientist (Rains) who discovers the formula for invisibility. Because this is a horror movie, that means that very, very bad things happen, but that still won't prepare you for the quality of these special effects, which look pretty damn good for being nearly 90 years old.

Director James Whale, who will be putting in another appearance on this list in a moment, made The Invisible Man both spooky and witty, and those twin strengths are embodied in Rains' performance. Really, it’s the actor's voice that must do most of the work — after all, we can't see him — and it's a marvel of sly superiority. Hollywood has tried remaking this material, but those efforts have been pretty hollow, man.

Bride of Frankenstein

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Sequels existed long before The Godfather: Part II. Take this follow-up to 1931's Frankenstein, which found that film's director, James Whale, revisiting Mary Shelley's pitiful monster, this time giving him a potential mate. (Oscar-nominated actress Elsa Lanchester played the titular bride, who isn't too enthused about Boris Karloff's raging, misunderstood Creature.)

Modern audiences might know Bride of Frankenstein best because it's part of the backdrop of the Oscar-winning Whale biopic Gods and Monsters, but this supremely moody and self-satirizing horror movie remains a surprisingly touching look at loneliness and the desire to find connection — even if your true love is a reanimated beast just like you.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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